100s come to see ‘Visions” of our future

envisioninggraphicwebIt was standing room at UNC Charlotte’s PORTAL building last week, as nearly 200 people heard fast-paced presentations on three ambitious transit- and trail-oriented development plans plus a panel discussion on making these plans reality. The event, “Envisioning the Future for University City”, was co-sponsored by University City Partners and Charlotte Research Institute and inspired by the coming LYNX light-rail line from uptown to campus.

“This is an exciting time!” Darlene Heater, executive director of University City Partners, began as she warmed up the crowd for the presentations to follow. “There is an unprecedented investment in public infrastructure, most notably the Blue Line Extension, which will be complete in August,” she said as the audience applauded.

“And it’s coming to campus how many times a day, Chancellor?” Heater asked, turning to Phil DuBois, seated in the front row.

“One hundred seven times a day,” UNC Charlotte’s chancellor shouted back.

University City Partners and stakeholders involved in plans

That intense frequency, coupled with the transit-oriented building boom taking place along the original Blue Line and estimates that the Blue Line Extension to University City will launch next fall with 25,000 riders a day, had much to do with so many people coming to hear about three development plans spearheaded by University City Partners.

UCP hired Planning Director Tobe Holmes, a veteran of South End planning and development, just as it began work on the three plans presented last Thursday at the conference.

“These plans are not just pie in the sky plans,” Heater said. “They are based on real data and analysis.”

The plans also have extensive involvement by the property owners and stakeholders most likely to benefit from their success. Several property owners joined UCP in funding the JW Clay Station Master Plan and the University City Station Concept Plan.

The Crosland Company, owner of Town Center Plaza, took part in the two-day planning Charrette earlier this year that helped shape the Toby Creek Greenway and University City Boulevard Intersection Study.

“I think that everyone involved is interested in protecting their development. They want development that is high quality, walkable and urban,” Stewart Parks, principal in The Arden Group, told the audience as he shared key points of the University City Boulevard Station Study. “The biggest challenge is how do we create this environment in a fairly brief period of time?”

Plan report: J.W. Clay Boulevard Transit Station Master Plan

Clay Blvd Station PlanUniversity City Partners and six property owners around the Clay Boulevard Station teamed up with Asheville-based Design Workshop to create a plan for maximizing each owner’s piece of the 115-acre study area within a 10-minute walk of the station.

“The plan is to really take advantage of the amazing assets here,” said Glenn Waters, principal for Design Workshop. Those assets include light rail, a major university, great jobs, a hospital and high traffic counts – “Things we wish for on other projects are all here.”

A market study of faculty, employees, students and people living throughout Charlotte found encouraging data including a strong desire by people to live closer to work and play, where the community is more walkable than where they live now.

The plan envisions a dynamic mixed-use pedestrian-oriented community with up to 8 million square feet of housing, offices, shops, restaurants and civic uses, clustered eight districts including:

  • A college district on the grounds of the existing Mallard Pointe Shopping Center.
  • A “Festival” entertainment district running from the transit station to the far side of the University Place lake.
  • A civic district with library, school, park and greenways on the north side of the lake and Doug Mayes Place.
  • An office district of mid-rise buildings along I-85.
  • A residential district between the office district and lake, plus exising communities.

A key component is “gateway” intersections on North Tryon Street and W.T. Harris Boulevard, with a signature intersection and buildings at Harris and Tryon that mirror The Square at Trade and Tryon streets in uptown.

“With a lot of work and cooperation (by both public and private entities), I think it can become an amazing place,” Walters said.

Plan report: University City Station Concept Planning

University City Blvd Station PlanTwo major property owners, The Arden Group and Carolina States Regional Center, teamed up with University City Partners to craft this plan for 88 acres, nearly all undeveloped, on the north side of North Tryon Street surrounding the University City Station and 1,500-car parking deck.

“The goal is to create a new urban center” that is high quality, walkable and urban, said Stewart Parks of The Arden Group.

While that sounds like a general plan for several transit stations, Parks said that each stop on the Blue Line Extension is “remarkably unique.”

“The topography and physical condition at each station present unique opportunities, unique identities and unique experiences,” he added.

At University City Boulevard Station, those unique qualities include its closeness to two I-85 interchanges, extensive green space, the 1,500-car parking garage and retail space, large parcels already assembled, and one older cluster of buildings “that can provide opportunities for unique development and uses over time.”

Creating that future urban center here will take time, however, and waiting time presents a challenge, Parks said: “How to protect green space and resist pressure for immediate development for current market conditions.”

Plan report: Toby Creek Greenway & University City Blvd Intersection Study

Toby Creek PlanPeople who drive University City Boulevard near UNC Charlotte chuckled when John Cock of Alta Planning and Design flashed two nearly identical photos on the screen – the first showing the barren concrete underbelly of the W.T. Harris Boulevard overpass and the second showing the same image, but with concrete colorfully alive with massive paintings and graffiti.

“University City Partners asked, ‘How can we make a connection between the existing trail on campus and the future piece of the Cross Charlotte Trail to the south?'” Cock had said earlier.

The colorful bridge (possibly painted by university students), public art and a place for pop-up retail at Town Center Plaza are among the ideas that grew out of a two-day planning charrette involving Alta, UNC Charlotte staff, faculty and students, urban designers and key stakeholders.

The Cross Charlotte Trail will connect several existing greenways to create a 26-mile bike and pedestrian path from University City to Pineville via uptown. Voters approved funding to build the trail last fall. The project will take a decade to complete.

The main issues the charrette dealt with included providing safety for trail users crossing University City Boulevard, creating a lively people place and trail destination that would be worthy of future investment, and capitalizing on existing and future investment – including the possibility of bringing mixed-use development to an area now dominated by big-box retail and parking lots.

The Crosland Co., which owns Town Center Plaza, had people at the charrette, Cock noted. “Crosland was excited about bringing their center to trail users,” he said. The center has a bike shop, fitness center and several restaurants. “How do we bring their retail out to the street?”

The plan suggests creating an area in Town Center Plaza near the trail crossing where shops and restaurants could also have temporary presence.

Reactions to the Vision presentations

University City Partners asked several people to share their thoughts on the Visioning presentations. These comments have been edited for clarity and brevity.

George Maloomianpresident of Cambridge Properties and part owner of Mallard Pointe Shopping Center, which his company built. He also was a founder and past chairman of University City Partners. He and his partner in Mallard Pointe Associates helped fund the Clay Station study.

General assessment of the Clay Station Plan
I think the whole plan was very thoughtful to capture the need to create a sense of place in University City. I think the concept of extending the university into the Mallard Pointe property at some future date and creating the village they talked about … is a good idea.

What does it take to get the plan moving?
It will take a lot of things coming together. The light rail will set up the framework. As the rail gets open, patterns of development will start to shift. The opening of rail will also shift the economics of development of underwriting of projects that you can do that will increase density.
It doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a 5- to 10-year process. That’s exactly the time period with the Blue Line south of Charlotte. Everything you see now has taken over 10 years to get done.

The future of Mallard Pointe Shopping Center
Mallard Pointe will change over time, as well. The fact that it is working well now doesn’t mean that there may not be compelling reasons in 5 to 10 years to redevelop.
While we are waiting for that, yes, it is working well and serving a need. But in 5 to 10 years, will this be the highest and best use of the center? Probably not. When you invest time, the plan makes a lot of sense.

What can the public sector do now to move the plan forward
Provide additional infrastructure. Improve pedestrian connectivity. Add pocket parks close to the developments to help create a sense of place. Continue to press on with building the greenways. We have made decent process over the last decade.
Keith WassumAssociate vice chancellor for business services at UNC Charlotte and longtime University City resident

General assessment of the Clay Station Plan
From a community member perspective, I am a really big supporter of trying to make things walkable and particularly to make University Place walkable.
The original plan for University Place served its purpose and now it needs to be like Birkdale, with streets and parking decks. It needs to be walkable.
I really like what I heard, and I like that we have a plan, but I was struck by how long it will take to make the change.
I was left wondering, what are the next steps? But hey, there are some good ideas.

Dealing with Harris and Tryon traffic
Making the broader area walkable will be hard. We have two major arteries and they are more than four lanes wide. From what I have seen and read, it is really difficult to have traffic calming on four lanes. I think the best we can hope for is to create the college district across (US) 29 and find some good ways to make that connection.

Get quality construction
I want to make sure that we build stuff that looks good and lasts. Campus buildings are made from steel and concrete and built to last 50 years or more. Apartments the city recently approved near campus are 25-year buildings.

 

Shane HockensmithOwner of Bike Line of Charlotte

General assessment of the Vision event
I was glad to see people from many entities at the presentation, particularly the university. A lot of times in the past, the university has been an island by itself, so I am glad the university has embraced this. The event was on campus. The chancellor was there. The mayor pro tem was there. The head of University City Partners was there. For me, this was an affirmation that this is going to happen.

Pleased with Toby Greenway crossing study
I was at the planning charrette in October. it was good (at last week’s presentation) to see the continuation of the process and to see that this meeting is taking it one step forward and the charrette was not all for naught.
A lot of people were at that charrette. Kids from UNCC were at the charrette. Crosland took part one day, and I think that was a major step.
Being a store owner in Town Center Plaza, it is extremely important to me that the gateway to the university is developed, and I’m glad to see John Cock (with Alta Planning and Design) focus on that.

 

Christa Wagner VinsonEconomic developer and Principal of Wagner Vinson Consulting

General assessment of the Vision event
I think the master plans presented are quite thoughtful, appealing improvements to increase the density and walkability of University City’s car-centric pattern of development. University City is heading in the right direction – and responding to what people are demanding – by emphasizing density and diversity: a mix of uses, building types and public spaces integrated with transit.

These plans are about jobs as well as buildings
University City wants to be a magnet for good jobs and skilled workers, retaining the talent from UNC Charlotte. We know that the presence of college-educated residents impacts the kinds of jobs (and wages) available to every worker in the local economy. Attracting and retaining skilled workers and employers to University City by making these investments in the Boulevard Station and the Toby Creek Greenway/UC Boulevard Intersection isn’t just a smart design plan – it’s planning for jobs.
The cities that will compete for the jobs of the future are making the investments to support transit, place-making, and connectivity.

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